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Homework gap highlights digital divide as Congress considers more money for broadband

May 14, 2020
By: Ellen Marrison

School buses across the country are helping school children as they finish a decidedly unconventional academic year but they aren’t transporting students, they are acting as mobile Wi-Fi units bringing connectivity capability to students who lack broadband service. As the coronavirus pandemic closed schools across the country, many in rural or low-income areas without internet access were left scrambling as classes went online. Equipping buses with Wi-Fi to help accommodate the online learning is a short-term solution to a much bigger problem. Beyond the transition to online learning to complete the school year, the social distancing in place to stem the transmission of the coronavirus has increased the use of communications services as Americans try to stay connected, and in turn highlighted the hardships for those who lack connectivity.

The current push to online education, remote working, virtual gatherings, telehealth medicine, online shopping, and more, has exacerbated the challenges caused by a lack of broadband coverage or access throughout the country. A report earlier this year from the Pew Charitable Trusts noted that estimates on the number of Americans that still lack broadband access vary from 21 million by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to other estimates that are as high as 126 million. The report  explored ways that states are expanding broadband access and notes that “no silver bullet will ensure better broadband connectivity,” but goes on to say the research findings underscore the fact that state policy matters.

In a U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation yesterday, Steven K. Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, noted that it is important to “recognize how the pandemic has confirmed the significant disconnect experienced by those on the wrong side of the digital divide. New network planning has slowed substantially, and carriers are facing new challenges navigating the permitting process at state and local levels due to the pandemic.”

Berry called upon Congress and the FCC to focus on updating the nation’s mobile broadband coverage maps, reform deployment policies to support a 5G future, and provide resources to ensure that ubiquitous mobile services are available in both urban and rural areas. The FCC has faced criticism in its rush to deploy funding without updating coverage data, or delaying distributing the work for years as new data is collected. Berry called such options “a false choice,” and said that the data could be gathered in months as opposed to years. He warned that it is important to get the data right the first time, saying he fears that some areas that need connection will be overlooked because the maps don’t show a complete picture.

While states continue to try to adopt plans that will best serve their constituents, recent bipartisan legislation that was signed into law in March requires the FCC to change the way broadband data is collected, verified and reported. Specifically, the FCC must collect and disseminate granular broadband maps from wired, fixed-wireless, satellite, and mobile broadband providers. However, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the FCC does not have the funding to carry out the act and went on to indicate that because of a prohibition on the Universal Service Administrative Company performing the mapping work, the legislation “will have the unfortunate effect of delaying rather than expediting the development of better broadband maps.”

While the latest stimulus package introduced by House Democrats this week proposes providing $5.5 billion for broadband funding with $1.5 billion of that to close the homework gap by providing funding for Wi-Fi hotspots and connected devices for students and library patrons, and $4 billion for emergency home connectivity needs, its passage by the full Congress is uncertain.

broadband, congress, fcc